Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
Jasper Johns (b. 1930)


Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
signed and dated 'Jasper Johns 09' (lower left)
ink on plastic
20 3/8 x 34¼ in. (51.8 x 87 cm.)
Painted in 2009.
Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery

Lot Essay

Jasper Johns' ink on plastic drawing Untitled (2009) is a part of the Fragment of a Letter series first seen in his critically acclaimed exhibition at the Matthew Marks Gallery last spring. Featuring the letters of the artist's name spelled out in sign language, the simple gestures of the artist's hand forming each of the letters of his name create an abstract composition of organic shapes, which emerge from the rich background of pooling ink.

The Fragment of a Letter series was inspired by a letter by Vincent van Gogh to his friend, the artist Émile Bernard, in which he writes, "The primary condition on which success depends is to set aside all petty jealousies for only union is strength. Surely the common interest is worth the sacrifice of that selfishness of every man for himself."

In a recent interview, the artist Terry Winters asked Johns about his inspiration for the series: "I was working with the manual alphabet and impressions of hands, and I just noticed the handshake and then started reading backwards. It seemed to me a very nice letter, at least the last part of it."1 Handprints, and bodily impressions more broadly, are familiar motifs in Johns' work. His inclusion of such references stretches all the way back to the body casts featured in his Target paintings from the 1950s, up through his Study for Skin drawings made in the early 1960s, and is also prominent in such important works as Perilous Night from 1982.

In his interview with Johns, Winters noted how these new hand impressions, unlike the frontal and iconic handprints that appear in earlier works like the lithograph Skin with O'Hara Poem from 1965, are much more gestural, reading almost as a narrative, which in turn changes the viewer's reading and perception of the works. In response, Johns states, "that's the nature of language, and the gestures here imitate sign language, where meaning is conveyed by gesture."2 And as Johns later notes, "meaning is difficult to control, and I think that much art allows us to find or invent meanings of our own."3 This last statement reaffirms a characteristic of all Johns' work, from his immediately recognizable Target and Flag paintings, to his more personal and subjective work.

Johns first used plastic as a drawing support in 1961, shortly after he moved to Edisto Beach, South Carolina, where he found sheets of translucent plastic material in an art supply store. The patterning that results from the ink pooling and drying on the non-absorbent surface is one of his most unique and recognizable techniques.

1 Jasper Johns in an interview with Terry Winters, in Jasper Johns: New Sculpture and Works on Paper. Exh. cat. (New York: Matthew Marks Gallery, 2011), p. 150.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid., p. 151.

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